That Redefines Reality
Are the cries of birds really cries of joy and ecstasy or are they
cries of despair?
Is life essentially tragic or comic,
lyric or lurid? These are the master questions that have occupied
master writers through the centuries. To laugh or not to laugh,
to cry or not to cry, that is the question.
It's not enough to repeat the cliché that the thinking man
laughs, the feeling man cries. The greatest poems in every language
present us with some powerful answers, and the greatest writers
are great ontologists.
Perhaps Shakespeare said it better
poet's eye, in a fine frenzy rolling
is nothing new under the moon, but poetry is news when it articulates
some new interpretation of reality or voices an old vision in a unique
and unforgettable way. In a time when all the conventional standards
for judging poetry have been more or less abandoned, a writer's take
on reality is indeed a litmus test of his relative importance. Trendy
writers and artists fade into the woodwork, while voices we never
noticed surge forward.
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
The stamp of radical imagination, of
a unique view of reality, is unmistakable. It marks the genius and
separates it from the pedestrian, common denominator of consciousness.
When one comes upon a great text (poem or prose or painting) for the
first time, one thinks, "I never saw the world, I never saw life like
that before!" Many is the time someone has told me of some poem that
forever changed their view of life, and their lives as well. Often
it is not a whole poem but just a line, a phrase, an image or a figure
of speech that does it, when the poet makes us see what is really
on the end of our fork.
It's almost impossible to pick examples
that turn on everyone, since the effect of a poem is so subjective
and different for everyone. Nevertheless, one could cite so many passages
in Shakespeare's Sonnets, in the English Romantics, in Matthew
Arnold, in William Butler Yeats, in Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson,
Edna St.Vincent Millay, Dylan Thomas, Allen Ginsberg, and other superrealists
and visionaries. (In the graphic arts, think of what Goya, Picasso,
Magritte, the Surrealists, the Dadaists, the American abstract expressionists,
the Pop artists did to our views of reality.)
Such original conceptions of reality
are after all why we read poetry or look at art--to throw some light
on our own lives and loves, or somehow to fathom man's fate, to find
clues to the meaning of our still mysterious existence on earth. We
yearn for the epiphany that will reveal all.
The way poets see nature and love has
traditionally shaped their worldview, but modern industrial civilization
has distanced us all from nature, if not from love. In the nineteenth
century, poets relied heavily on the device of the "pathetic fallacy"
in which nature is given human traits and emotions. The English and
German Romantic poets gave nature an almost human sexual anima. Goethe's
Sorrows of Young Werther portrays nature as a mirror of the
poet's unrequited love. And T.S. Eliot saw a dying nature in the modern
metropolis, a wasteland in which his hero J. Alfred Prufrock led a
life of ennui and frustration, if not sterility.
Since Eliot's "defeated romanticism,"
modern poets have become ever more alienated from nature. Bertolt
Brecht and Pier Paolo Pasolini saw the modern city as an inferno,
while Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Charles Bukowski, and myriad other
younger Americans have had increasingly black visions, with more still
coming in "bad-rap" poetry at poetry slams, noir jazz, and grafitti
by "taggers" in subways and buses. Their alienation is not only from
nature but from society itself.
Perhaps in the end it's up to the poets,
songwriters, filmmakers, and conceptual artists to save us from a
violent noir world, with some new truly lyric inspiration.
The Beatles said, "We all live in a yellow submarine, yellow, submarine,
yellow submarine. . . ." We need a new type of vehicle to escape like
that. Perhaps some new poetic genius will arise and invent a new poetic
vehicle to transport us, a grand new ontological vision.
You could call this the "lyric escape"--something
that poets have always indulged in, creating their own illusions to
live by and denying the darkening plain of the "real" world. But is
some ecstatic epiphany, revealing an ultimate reality, too much to
Poetry and Autogeddon
Poets are supposed to be the antennae of the race. In 1958, in the
first poem in A Coney Island of the Mind, I had a dubious vision
of a concrete continent with freeways fifty lanes wide. But that was
pure hyperbole, and naturally no one took it seriously.
A decade ago a British poet, Heathcote
Williams, published a book of poetry called Autogeddon. Here
is one pithy part of it:
an Alien Visitor were to hover a few hundred yards above the planet
It could be forgiven for thinking
That cars were the dominant life form,
And that human beings were a kind of ambulatory fuel cell:
Injected when the car wished to move off,
And ejected when they were spent.
1885 Karl Benz constructed the first automobile.
It had three wheels, like a car for invalids,
And ran on alcohol, like many drivers.
Since then about seventeen million people have been killed by them
In an undeclared war,
And the whole of the rest of the world is in danger of being run
over. . . .
His prophecies of the future Armageddon
of automobiles wasn't taken seriously, either. After all, since when
were poets supposed to be describing the real world? It seems, however,
that we've gone far beyond his antiquated vision. Like George Orwell
with 1984, he didn't go far enough.
Today, we in America, always the leaders
of the free world, are reaping the fruits of this wonderful invention
by Herr Benz, abetted and aided by one H. Ford and other sedentary
geniuses of his ilk. Should I say we are reaping the bumper crop?
We have surpassed the inventors' wildest dreams, and perhaps they
will soon be turning in their graves, just as the inventors of the
atom bomb are no doubt whirring in theirs.
We happy few are the beneficiaries of
the real miracles Detroit has created. Turn on the radio any morning
at seven and hear about the glories of Autogeddon: wrecks on freeways
as good as any conceptual sculpture, bridges and ramps clogged, traffic
backed up twenty miles out, sirens and car alarms echoing like a symphony
over the airwaves. It is indeed an epic scene for an epic poem. All
the elements of a great tragedy or at least a great tragicomedy are
present. And when the citizens' frustration builds up to road rage
and there's a road kill, you have the perfect purgative effect
that all great drama must have.
But it is not all bad. There is a beauty
in it, too. There is a poetry of driving that may escape many drivers,
if not many poets. Even if you get hung up on a freeway for an hour
or two in a ten-mile-long traffic jam, you can still observe the divine
comedy of all the souls trapped in their cars. Or, to add drama to
your poetry, once you do get into the city, you can almost run
down a pedestrian or two, or a bicyclist. There's no more poetic way
to scare the life out of a native in a crosswalk (who may be in the
right, but will end up dead wrong). Or you can terrorize a driver
by tailgating her and flashing your lights on and off.
There's nothing to stop you when there're
no cops around. There's no book of etiquette for drivers. Miss Manners
has few car manners--there's just no tradition for it. We've progressed
so fast that we haven't had time to create one. No one is taught that
it is simply bad form to blow your horn at anyone except when in real
danger. And a good thing, too. It would impede progress, it would
be in restraint of trade, almost as bad as all those strict environmental
Your car is indeed your symbol of freedom,
and it's your inalienable right to do anything you want in it. But
I have my inalienable rights, too, and I'm a civil rights poet who
believes in slow, leisurely drives about the city or on the freeway.
I love to drive as slowly as possible. The slower I drive, the more
poetic it is. Like watching a film in slow motion after smoking a
joint, and everything takes on a profound symbolic quality. I love
to kick back and enjoy the lovely landscape. This always infuriates
the bobo on the cell phone behind me who by now is giving me the finger
and blasting me with his klaxon. But the more this dude rages, the
slower I drive. How can I tell him that the great epic poem I'm writing
is every bit as important as that startup dot-commie he's rushing